One thing about the Maritimes is we’re born storytellers.
But until last week, there wasn’t a single Maritimer who could call himself a Wanderer down somewhere in the vicinity of Spring Garden Rd. at 2:26am on a Sunday morning. (The club signed Aiden Rushenas to be the back-up goalkeeper last Monday, and as a third-year Dal student he should be more than able to carry the team in this capacity. There’s Daniel Nimick, too, but we’ll get to him later..)
We could ramble something about “Together From Away” here, preferably with the “X” in the middle, but this team’s story has always been more of a tragicomic Stan Rogers ballad, and since most of this year’s many new arrivals aren’t likely to know any, here’s a quick introduction to the man.
Y’see, boys, everything here is a bit broken-down. Not necessarily specifically; it’s more of a metaphorical state-of-being, a sense that the federal government has, since about 1822, more or less forgotten the Maritimes even exist, except when we’re needed to build ships, sail ships, or die getting off of ships.1If you want to represent expert local knowledge, know that I am lumping in Newfoundland here, which is a faux pas, as Newfoundland didn’t officially join Canada until 1949 and has its own sadder and sorrier history of the above.
Thus the famous refrain that you absolutely will hear on Spring Garden at 2:26am, earlier if the night is a good one:
So here I lie in my twenty-third year
How I wish I was in Sherbrooke now!
It’s been six years since I sailed away…
…and I just made Halifax yesterday!
God damn them all!
You will hear this sung, passionately, while you play. And please, take it in the best spirit that it is, indeed, meant. But the thing about Stan (who was also a Come From Away, it ought to be noted; he was as green as Ontario soil) that sets his music apart is it’s never just that old nostalgic song of yore. There’s always that bit of rage.
Who will know the Bluenose in the sun?
There’s always that little bit of reality mixed into tragedy.
We’ve been here, doing stuff like this together, five years at this point. The first thing you need to know, that we need to make clear, is we do this out of love. And there is no lack of it, just the inevitable trade-off with which life must always be lived. There is never so much that’s good without the bad. These are aphorisms — they are also deeply true. That’s why we put them in songs.
I debated not doing a preview this year, because the story here is not particularly a happy one, at least not anymore. Wanderers’ fans–and how apt the club’s name, and the supporters’ living in the kitchen, toiling away — are in for another tough season. I understand completely why the club, under pressure to achieve something that may not actually be achievable, doesn’t use the term “rebuild” very often.
But there is no other way to look at the Wanderers of 2023.
They are our boys, though. Through and through. All the way from Ontario.
I also spent about three months this winter trying and failing to write something about the club’s decision to fire inaugural coach2And honorary Haligonian if ever there was one. Stephen Hart.
Again, I understand the decision. I’m not sure I like it. I’m not sure Patrice Gheisar, who has been successful albeit at a lower level, is necessarily a clear upgrade, though I am curious as to how he’ll adapt to fully-professional football and I think he’s one of the top coaching prospects in the country.
But he will be up against it. The local talent pool in Atlantic Canada is not deep. There is some that clings on, winter after long winter, but it is harder and harder, every year, to continue playing in this region. That puts Wanderers at a disadvantage.
Gheisar has — along with sporting director Matt Fegan, who does know the Halifax soccer scene — brought in a bunch of promising talent from the division three League 1 Ontario, much of it from Gheisar’s former club Vaughan Azzurri, rather than the club’s previous strategy of bringing in a lot of talent from the division three Premier Ligue du Quebec.
Many of those Vaughan players are legit prospects, but Wanderers will be young, lacking experience in the Canadian Premier League, and given I’d probably give PLSQ and edge over League 1 Ontario if it came to it3They didn’t play an inter-provincial men’s game last year, but PLSQ has won the last three meetings across the old cup and the 2018 Voyageur’s Cup, for what it’s worth. I’m not sure how much of a change there really is in the approach.
It’s not necessarily a bad approach, either. The underlying problem remains the talent pool locally, at least without a D3 league of its own, isn’t big enough to support a professional team. Though every year, little half-steps of progress are made towards that, as is always the way. I’m hoping to have more on Wanderers U23 this year once again — the senior team will have to be a team of Come From Aways. It always has been, and that’s what I love about them, but it means recruitment is always going to be a challenge and it means much of last year’s loyal crew, guys who were supposed to be key pieces in the last rebuild and hard workers all, is now moving on.
( * Played previously for Wanderers U23)
Wanderers finished 2022 almost 20 points out of the playoffs, ahead of only a failing FC Edmonton team made up of temporary loanees. It was nowhere near what was hoped for. So you expect the changes, to be sure.
The club has been very clear in multiple interviews, both with Fegan and with president Derek Martin, that culture and mentality was an issue last year again. Again, because this is now the second group in five years that’s undergone a full-on cultural reset. This one needs to stick.
In goal, two local ‘keepers are gone, replaced with veteran Canadian Yann Fillion, once a Montreal academy player who’s since played just about everywhere a Canadian prospect could hope to play — Finland, the Swiss League, and TFC II! He’s a solid enough goalkeeper, always has been, and should make things a bit less interesting on the kitchen porch. I rate Fillion among the league’s top ‘keepers, and he’s coming in with a similar level of experience as Marco Carducci or Jonathan Sirois did.
It’s an upgrade. Christian Oxner(!) had a pretty good run. Kieran Baskett was very young, but lacked maturity off the field, and is now out west getting it, as young boys from the Maritimes tend to do. This is fine.
Depth will be a bit of a question with only Rushenas behind Fillion, but that’s true for most CanPL teams. Rushenas struggled in his one brief appearance for Wanderers U23 last year but he’s been pretty solid in AUS4He would have been in NCAA but for Covid. and deserves a shot.
Fullback, too, is shaping up to be a real strength. Zach Fernandez was mostly very good last year and Cristian Campagna was a big highlight late in the year after his arrival from Whitecaps 2. Both are back.
Wes Timotéo was excellent in Edmonton, mostly as a right wing-back, though he can also play higher, and likely will in Halifax. But he has the defensive sense to cover if and when Fernandez wants to be adventurous. It’s a good right side, generally, plus Riley Ferrazzo is a flash attacking fullback from Vaughan who can spell someone on the left or right..
Centre-back is a bit less certain, but I do think Wanderers will be decent defensively again. They usually are, for better or worse.
Ryan James is the main acquisition–he’s a veteran left-back who’s bounced around the American lower divisions, mostly in USL with good mid-tier sides like Pittsburgh, and he should be a solid CanPL player who can push Campagna.
Jake Ruby is back, and made strides last year as a full-time centre-back, though he continues to struggle with injuries. I really like that Wanderers signed Cale Loughrey from Forge via Edmonton, and I think he’ll fit better in a more defensive set-up than a high-possession system. Daniel Nimick is an MLS draft pick who didn’t make it, but who was born in Happy Valley – Goose Bay, becoming Wanderers’ first Newfoundlander (or Labradorian, in this case) though he grew up in England from a pretty young age.
I like this combination of players, but I don’t think any of them, even James, are particularly proven in this league, and one thing you could say about Peter Schaale and Eriks Santos was it was a reasonably proven pairing. I’m disappointed to see Schaale go, as he’s become an important part of the local youth coaching community. I hope he manages to stick around somehow.
It’s perhaps unfair not to lead this preview with Joao Morelli’s injury given how much it derailed the team’s plans last year both on and off the field. It feels like the latest bout of tragedy for a club that’s had rotten luck with injuries, but with the club already confirming he won’t be back until at least mid-way through the season, it may be better to focus on what we do have. If or when Morelli does come back, after ACL surgery and a year off, he’s going to need most of the back half of the year just to get up to speed.
Without him, though, the middle of the park does not work. Even with Morelli, it’s hard to see this Wanderers team scoring enough goals to make the playoffs, or even entertain the fans. Morelli won the golden boot in 2021, and the team still only managed a goal per game. Arguably, there is less firepower now. Certainly, much less of it is in any way professionally proven.
Aidan Daniels is back, however, and will have to be the primary creative force. I admit to being surprised by this one. I thought he was very poor last year, and he struggled to earn minutes. A lot of last year’s team felt a lot of pressure to deliver and, with Daniels — who is a legitimately talented player — I always chalked it up to that, plus a bit of low-key Canadian culture-shock. He’s never really played outside Ontario, and the salt air can affect people that way. Plus I suspect a lot of the league’s Ontario-born players know his moveset.
But I remain a big fan of his game when he’s on — a wonderful combination a creativity and speed. He wasn’t used especially well last year, and is slightly one-dimensional when used best — he’ll do defensive work, but he’s not in any way good at it.
Instead, Wanderers kept trying to use him in Morelli’s role and Daniels is not Morelli, even if he needs to be, in this team.
Lorenzo Callegari is the other wildcard. He’s the closest thing to a marquee signing this winter, and has some impressive clubs on his youth résumé, but has mostly played at the fourth-division level in France. There were guys from that league at the CanPL open trials, and they didn’t make teams in 2019.
He’s 25 now — his days at Paris St.-Germain are well back. Likewise his time with the French U20 program. There are no sure things in CanPL international signings, certainly not in Halifax, but our league has grown a fair bit since 2019 and Callegari doesn’t scream starter compared to a lot of other signings this winter. It’s an odd use of a roster spot, but may be best viewed as a lower-risk/highish-reward move, perhaps with an eye to next winter when Morelli’s status will be a bit more certain.
One international who has been a success for Wanderers — so much so he’s the club’s captain — is Andre Rampersad. His first appearance of 2023, by the way, will be his 100th for Wanderers in all competitions.
He’s been a terrific player for this club, earned a couple of international call-ups this spring, and is one of the best in the league at his position. If only they could get scoring pieces around him, because I despair that Rampy is ever going to get another goal. As a connective #8, though, he can bring a plan together in transition, and in Patrice Gheisar’s system should have a fair bit more leeway to arrive late in the box.
Mo Omar may play more centre-back this year, though he still thinks the game like a d-mid, and I think he has huge upside there. He will be pushed by Callum Watson, an NCAA player from a reasonable Creighton program. I question slightly the wisdom of burning an international slot on a NCAA player given how many Canadians are somewhere in that system. Creighton is better than your average USPORTs team, but not by that much.
Armaan Wilson is also a #6, and came through Woodbridge Strikers so you know he’s combative. Gheisar will know him well and believes he’s ready to do more. That’s kind of the spec on a lot of this year’s roster. I’m a bit more cautious, but Wilson was excellent in the pre-season match I saw at Wickwire, just all over the backfield to provide passing options.
The depth is more quantity than quality — the hope will be that one or more of these prospects explode into the league as prospects sometimes do, in which case they become much more central pieces in 2024.
Tactics & Positions
Tactically, you can see the general idea here: there will be a lot of running. On the counter, Wanderers could be effective. And hey, Ottawa did worst-to-first that way last year. ‘Tis a copycat league.
When I do the lineup graphics it’s always more about the depth-chart than the actual positions, and there’s something of a crucible here in how Gheisar will actually play: his Vaughan and Seneca teams were very, very fluid, and that’s how Wanderers have played in pre-season against mostly lower-level teams. But his Vaughan and Seneca teams were amongst the best in their leagues; this Wanderers team, especially in attack, is not.
Attacking fluidity is a really nice ideal, but if you can’t sustain it, it’s like grabbing the wrong end of your sharpest knife in a kitchen drawer. At some point — and if pre-season was any indication, it’ll be early on, while the team is still settling in –a sideways pass will get mis-timed and there is going to be a lot of space open.
That was what doomed Stephen Hart and Alex Dorado’s system last year, which was extremely easy on the eye until it collided with reality and a combined 0 – 7 over a couple of home games against Forge. The team buckled, Hart shut up shop, and they put up a club-lowest 24 goals.
Sometimes it does come down to culture and mentality, and how well you’re willing to stick with it when the going is rough.
Looking at the attacking options, there is no player who is going to scare other teams into sitting back. Fumpa Mwandwe is one of the only returning names and he’s been playing right-back in pre-season. He’s a hugely fun player to watch and a very good card to have in your deck if you want to counterattack, but it remains true that he does not yet have a CanPL goal despite having won four penalties and having hit the post almost as often. He’s fast, direct, terrifying to defend — but he doesn’t have particularly amazing technical ability.
He will score this year, either from deep or by running past someone, but I dunno if he’s ever going to score a lot, and boy could Wanderers use someone who scores a lot.
I think that could — could –be Kosi Nwafornso. People who follow the lower leagues in this country will know Nwarnfoso, who had a cup of coffee with Forge as an emergency signing but never actually played for them. He’s bounced around a fair bit, actually, but is coming off a season with Vaughan where he scored 19 in 13. Those are the kind of numbers Wanderers fans has never even contemplated.
He’s big with a soft touch, which often translates up a level, and fearless in the box. It’s a big step up for him, and for all the League 1 guys Wanderers are counting on up top, but of all of them, I might be most keen on Nwafornso, and if he does break out, he’ll keep my tradition of being way off on Wanderers going. Go Kosi.
The other name you’ll recognize up top (though I didn’t put him on the graphic there) is Ludwig Amla, who signed late last year from PLSQ after playing against Wanderers U23. Like Mwandwe, he never managed a goal, but he’s also big, strong, and fairly technical. You see why he’s a decent prospect. Like Nwarnfoso, his main challenge will be reading the game at a CanPL speed of play. He gets to spots too late, and strikers, like Wanderers’ fans, live on anticipation.
Théo Collomb arrives with a fair bit, having scored in NCAA. He went to Whitecaps 2 last summer, though, and didn’t. He’s another slightly odd international signing, and probably needs to prove himself inside a handful of starts if he wants to be playing professional soccer next year.
There’s no Morelli on this depth chart, obviously. If you simply must swap Brazilian for Brazilian (but actually Canadian), there’s Tiago Coimbra, who plays for our U20s as well as Palmeiras’. He’s 18, though, and probably here mostly to get experience in a first-team, which is what this league is about. (He’s been scoring a bunch in pre-season, but mostly against lower-league teams. Still, goals are goals, and 18-year-olds can perform in this league.)
You can expect a bit more from Massimo Ferrin, an attacking midfielder who scored a whopping 24 goals for Vaughan last year. Obviously, he needs to be at a higher level, and now is — you can read my upcoming York preview for some thoughts about how long it took to get these guys into CanPL. That may work to Wanderers’ advantage. The jump in level is a huge “if,” but if Ferrin adapts quickly, you might almost start talking about Morelli being expendable.
(Update April 12th: I meant to do a quick bit on Kimani Stewart-Baynes, who’s on a development contract, here. I even left myself a note about it and still forgot. I’ll add a bit on him into the league-level preview on Friday because I think he may fit better there. He’ll be a lot of fun to watch this year, but he can only play in six games, so enjoy him when you do see him.)
Wanderers did the traditional Ontario thing and went to Florida, playing a bunch of games against the University of South Florida (former home of Tomasz Skublak!) and Inter Miama II (former home of World Cup winner Blaise Matuidi!), as well as an academy team and a NCAA Div 2 side.
They brought a little Florida back with them, too.
— Halifax Wanderers FC (@HFXWanderersFC) March 30, 2023
They won all their games down south, and put up three more clean-sheets in a trio of games this past weekend at Wickwire, which were open to the public and well-attended. That alone is such a smart move, and a great way to show what’s possible locally with the right venue and the right approach.
The results themselves likely say more about the quality of opposition than anything Wanderers are doing. What I think the pre-season was good for, and what it was probably intended to do, was build team cohesion and trust. Winning is good that way.
Going up against Ottawa on Saturday? That’s going to be a much sterner test of resolve.
There is possibility. Promise. Hope for a run that would be a fairy-tale, but it feels that way because a lot of these prospects have to work, and quickly. If it all comes together, it will be.
Even then, young teams under first-time coaches tend to hit rough patches, and Wanderers have struggled with the accordant pressure before. That’s the one downside of 6,500 eager fans.
I actually quite like the approach the club is taking. I think it’s sensible, given how 2022 ended. I just worry they’re going to be under so much pressure to win and please the locals that this all crumbles again. And I know they know it.
I do not think the fans are going are going to be very forgiving of another rebuild, which puts the club in an awkward position. This is not a rush-things roster, and it’s likely to look a lot better in 2024 or even 2025 than it does today. By then, Morelli’s status will be clearer, a new group of Wanderers may emerge, and the club can strengthen it with some targeted international signings of a higher calibre and higher cap hit.5While Wanderers get roster relief for Morelli, they do not get cap relief.
It’s possible it could come together sooner. A lot of the Vaughan guys are actually in their mid-20s and may need to catch an eye now, and Patrice Gheisar knows what they’re capable of first-hand. It could be very fun, but it feels like more of the same, just with different faces. Same old song.
This is a team that has never topped 28 goals in a 28-game season, and there aren’t goals in this team, at the professional level, to expect that to change. They have the hardest travel schedule in the league. Defensively, if they can stay healthy, they’re just about okay, but when you can’t sustain attacks, no matter how sexy those attacks are, you tend to put more pressure on the backline.
Everyone is going to need to be faster, stronger, and a lot more ruthless than they’re used to being.
The nature of the league this year means that six or seven teams are legitimately in contention (I think Vancouver will be quite decent but fade a bit late). Unfortunately, there are six or seven teams that are, on paper, just better than Wanderers. It’s going to take some consistency to nab the playoff spot Wanderers’ ownership so desperately wants, and even that would mean three straight games on the road.
I don’t know if there’s much the club can do, off the field, to prevent fans’ frustrations. It’s a very difficult thing to build a club in Halifax.
But it’s where we are. It’s what we have. I can just about get my head around this project paying off in the longer-term, despite frustration now, and I think I can support that. Of course I support it. But it’s never easy.
He pounds his fist white on the dock in the night and cries, “I’m gonna win!”